NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Rescuers suspended their search for the living and the dead in the rubble of a collapsed South Florida condo building Saturday to allow crews to start preparing the unstable remainder of the structure for demolition ahead of a tropical storm.
The search and rescue mission was halted in the afternoon as workers began the precarious business of boring holes to hold explosives in the concrete of the still-standing portion of the Champlain Towers South tower in Surfside, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told relatives awaiting word on missing loved ones.
In the closed-door briefing, Jadallah said the suspension was a necessary safety measure because the drilling could cause the structure to fail. If that were to happen, he said, “It’s just going to collapse without warning.”
But in video that one of the relatives livestreamed on social media, one of them was heard calling it “devastating” that the search was on pause. She asked whether rescuers could at least work the perimeter of the site so as not “to stop the operation for so many painful hours.”
Also Saturday, the confirmed death toll from the partial collapse of the 12-story building rose to 24 with the discovery of two more bodies. There were 121 people still unaccounted for.
Concerns had been mounting over the past week that the damaged structure was at risk of failure, endangering the crews below. The search in adjacent areas of the collapse site was curtailed, and shifts detected by monitors early Thursday prompted a 15-hour suspension of the entire effort until engineers determined it was safe to resume.
The building won’t come down until Monday at the earliest, according to Jadallah. That estimate was based on how many holes the demolition team needs to drill, he said, adding that the process has to move slowly to prevent a premature collapse.
With Tropical Storm Elsa looming in the Caribbean and forecast to move toward the state in the coming days, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said demolishing the “tottering” and “structurally unsound" structure is the prudent thing to do.
“If the building is taken down, this will protect our search and rescue teams, because we don’t know when it could fall over,” DeSantis said at a news conference earlier in the day. “And, of course, with these gusts, potentially that would create a really severe hazard.”
"The fear was that (Elsa) may take the building down for us and take it down in the wrong direction,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.
Elsa was downgraded Saturday from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph) as it brushed past the island of Hispaniola, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The long-term forecast track showed it heading toward Florida as a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, though some models would carry it into the Gulf or up the Atlantic Coast. Meteorologists warned that it could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to the Miami area.
“So we can’t let our guard down,” said Robert Molleda of the National Weather Service. "You still need to be watching this very closely.”
Once the structure is demolished, the remnants will be removed immediately with the intent of giving rescuers access for the first time to parts of the garage area that are a focus of interest, Jadallah said. That could give a clearer picture of voids that may exist in the rubble and could possibly harbor survivors.
No one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the June 24 collapse.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said officials would resume the search and rescue on any sections of the pile that are "safe to access as soon as we are cleared.”
Some families had asked to be able to return to the building to retrieve personal belongings, but they will not be allowed to do so.
“At the end of the day, that building is too unsafe to let people go back in,” DeSantis said. "I know there’s a lot of people who were able to get out, fortunately, who have things there. We’re very sensitive to that, but I don’t think there’s any way you can let somebody go up in that building given the shape that it’s in now.’’
Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Florida. Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.